Katie Naftzger, LICSW

family therapist, author, adoption specialist, consultant

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When I First Realized that Adoption was a Story of Survival

It was in my first meeting with Nora, 13, adopted from Korea at five months old. She had been crying a lot for the past week talking about how much she missed her birth mother. That’s when her mom got in touch with me.

In those first few meetings, I learned a lot about Nora. She was close with her adoptive parents who were responsive and thoughtful. She had lots of friends and was doing well in school. But there was an aspect of her story that still haunted her. Based on the sparse information in her file, Nora believed that she was left outside of a social welfare agency, and later found and brought in by a worker.

“I could have died,” she said.
Her eyes flooded with tears and she said it again.
“I could have died.”
Those words had never seen the light of day. It was like

a confession. Although she didn’t have the facts, what could have happened frightened her. Like other survivors she had come too close to not making it through. She knew that she had been at risk. She had spoken with her adoptive mother about most things but not this.

What did she need from me? A witness. There are often no witnesses in the lives of adoptees. Although I wasn’t there, I could be a witness for her story. She didn’t need me to tell her that she was safe or loved. She didn’t need me to explain why that might have happened to her. If I had responded that way, she might have sensed that I wanted her to feel better and tried to oblige. Then, she would be doing it for me not for her.

Calm and heartfelt, I said, “That must have been so scary for you to be all alone like that. You were afraid that something would happen to you,” to which she responded tearily, “I know.”

In time, she didn’t need to talk about it anymore. For now, it was as if a burden had been lifted.

Yes, the power of witnessing cannot be underestimated.

Adoptees survived something that was beyond their control. An infant or young child without parents who love and care for them is at risk. Although they may not remember what they went through, they are well aware that their physical and emotional safety was compromised. Life fell apart for a while. Often, there was trauma, relinquishment, abuse and instability. The adoption story is not just of abandonment or relinquishment. The adoption story is about survival. Some survived the relinquishment and then were safe in a stable adoptive home. Others had to survive again and again.

-excerpt adapted from “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.

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Another Survival Issue For Adopted Teens

Suicide – Another Survival Issue For Adopted Teens

I’ve described the adoption story for some as one of survival. Adoptees survived a tenuous situation that others did not. Adoptees will often go to great lengths not to be abandoned again.

Originally, they feared not being taken care of and getting their basic needs met. As children, that fear was mostly directed at their adoptive parents and caretakers. Mostly, they held adults responsible for how their life unfolded. Coming to terms with this experience was focused on accepting the lack of control that they had in their lives.

“It wasn’t your fault,” adults would say. “There was nothing that you could have done.” They were dependent on the kindness of strangers. And, for the most part, their life was out of their hands.

But now things are a little bit different. Adopted teens are approaching adulthood. And, although their parents continue to hold a prominent role in their life, adopted teens recognize that they now have a lot more power and control.

Now, their life is in their hands.

Adopted teens go from too little to too much control, both of which can be terrifying. Part of growing up is learning that you have more power over yourself and your own life than anyone else. This awareness can feel overwhelming for many adopted teens and, for some, unbearable.

Suicidality is also centered on survival. I would argue that for some adopted teens, suicidality becomes part of their continuing story as a survivor.

Research tells us that adopted teens are four times more likely to make a suicide attempt. In order to better understand what they’re going through, it’s not enough to ask, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Their relationship to suicidality cannot be distilled down to a “yes” or a “no” answer.

Themes that may shed some light on why adopted teens are at higher risk are survival, mental health, anger and identity. As an adoptive parent, you’re faced with the daunting task of being informed but not consumed by the life and death stakes of this topic. Perhaps a part of you is summoning that old saying, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it? They’re fine!” Some fear that putting suicide on the table, even in unspoken ways, may encourage it somehow. I understand that concern but that hasn’t been my experience. Eight out of ten people considering suicide give some sign of their intentions. Raising your awareness is less risky in the long run.

Learn more about this topic “Parenting In the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.” Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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My Take on ’13 Reasons Why’ – The Good, the Bad and the Misleading

(Disclaimer: This is a general opinion piece. Just had to get it off my chest! To learn more about mental health and adoption, check out my book.)

I decided to watch ’13 Reasons Why’  after hearing from parents of teens I was working with that their teen wanted to or had already watched it. Some saw bits and pieces, often the bits that were the most graphic, disturbing and controversial. Parents were scared about what this could do to their teen. After all, their teens were already emotionally vulnerable, which is why they were seeing me for therapy in the first place.

HOLLYWOOD

The plot seems absurd, contrived and glamorous. Certainly, there has been much uproar about the showing of how the character, Hannah, killed herself. Depicting details of how a suicide unfolds raises suicide risk. This is well-documented. Also, the absence of mental health was bizarre given that research suggests that around 90% of those who die from suicide had a diagnosable mental disorder.

IRRESPONSIBLE

Clearly, the goal of the show was to expose the issues, not to educate, or model how things could be different or better. In my opinion, this is irresponsible! Many have commented on the fact that the adults in the show were utterly useless, incompetent and in some ways, harmful. Having adults depicted in this manner undermines our message as parents, teachers, caretakers, to tell someone, preferably an adult.

WHAT THEY COULD HAVE DONE BETTER

There are many ways the show could have at least tried to mitigate these issues. Along with the warning about graphic material, they could have also included a reminder that this is fictional, not related to anyone in real life. They could have edited it differently so that it would be easier to avoid the graphic scenes. And, they could have stated an age limit such as 13 with parent’s permission, as they do with movies. I’m not saying that some tweens wouldn’t still watch it, but at least the message would be clear. I’m especially upset about tweens and teens who haven’t had sex yet. To have this be their first exposure to it is inappropriate.

TRUTHS

Although there was much in the series that was distorted, there were also some truths in it. For example, although they distorted parent’s obliviousness, you’d be surprised at just how little teens tell their parents about their lives. Not to be overly dramatic, but often what teens tell parents is just the tip of the iceberg. The series captured this piece. The other thing it is captured, is how fast everything goes in high school. It’s so fast. The rumors, the bullying, the grades, the cliques, the drugs, etc. It’s all just whizzing by. It’s hard for them, let alone for us, to keep track. It really is a storm.

“REASONS”

I recently attended a forum in my town in which there was a discussion about this series. One of the members of the panel was a high schooler. She said (paraphrasing), “Hannah had 13 reasons that she killed herself, but in reality, you might have 5 reasons, or 1 reason, or no reason.” It’s almost easier for teens to be depressed when there’s a clear precipitant – their father died, or their parents got divorced, or abandonment issues, etc. That’s hard and really painful. But, it can be just as hard and even sometimes harder to not have a reason at all. Sometimes you can have a great life, lots of friends, sports, good grades, tons of future potential, great family, and still want to kill yourself. When adults keep asking, why, why, it can just make them feel more guilty. Perhaps it’s a genetic predisposition to depression, which often comes to fruition in the teen years. Maybe they don’t have a “good” reason. And, if that’s the case, badgering them to figure it out will just make them feel more guilty.

REGRET

One of the other things that the show missed was the common experience of regret. Often those who attempt suicide experience regret at the last minute, which Hannah seemingly did not. Kevin Briggs wrote a book, “Guardian of the Golden Gate – Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair.” His job was to try to prevent people from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. In his foreword, “Most people who commit suicide don’t actually want to die. The few who have survived the 220 foot fall from the Golden Gate Bridge all agree that the moment they let go of the railing, they wanted to live.”

OPPORTUNITY FOR CONVERSATION

Although the series did not necessarily move the conversation forward about mental health, it did provide a way to talk about suicide, rape and other taboo, upsetting issues that happen too much. Often, teens watch stuff that we as adults aren’t privy too. We don’t have to depend on their report of whatever is going on. We can see it for ourselves and speak in a thoughtful, connected, informed way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflections – Start Where You Are

I’ve been reminded through my work with families this week that all you can do is start where you are.

No more, no less.

Even when you believe that you should have known better, or when your best doesn’t feel like enough, you can make peace with it. We’re all fallible. I know how easy it is to slip into feeling helpless, like there’s nothing you can do, hopeless, that it won’t get any better. and worthless, that you’re no good.

These things take time. It helps to be honest, to actively learn about your blind spots.

Know that when you’re critical towards others, you are likely defending against something, perhaps certain feelings or beliefs about yourself that are difficult to face.

Years ago in one of my very first parent groups, one mom said about her daughter, “She’s eight years old! I only have ten years left to teach her everything!” I know that there are valid reasons to panic. But, it’s important to take the time you need. Parents have told me that my book has been a comfort to them. Some have read it from cover to cover. Others, one idea at a time. My advice – take the time to actively engage with it, however long that takes.

 

 

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Why Join the Group?

I’ve literally been facilitating groups my entire career as an adoption therapist. Like family work, groups are more powerful than the sum of their parts. Adoptive parents appreciate the practical tips that are specific to their situation and feel more empowered and confident in the process. For those of you who are local, you can join the Monday from 10:30-12 noon group or the Friday from 1:30-3 pm group. Those who are outside of the vicinity are welcome to join our online group on Tuesday from 10-11:30 am.  They begin the first week of May. Join us! And, at a one-time fee of $197, it’s affordable. My hourly fee is $200 so it’s a wonderful opportunity! Open to adoptive parents of children through young adulthood but will be geared to adoptive parents of teens. Some of you may want to get a head start on these issues and it’s never too early! Others of you may have children who are now young adults, but as you probably know, many of the issues overlap.

If you’re feeling lost, overwhelmed, confused, or just want to learn as much as you possibly can about this critical period in your adopted teen’s life, join us!
BOOK NOW

 

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Intersection of Adoption and Teenhood

“Adoption and teenhood are inextricably intertwined. Physical changes include growth spurts, weight gain and acne along with facial hair and voice changes for boys and periods for girls. When teens look more mature and sexually developed, they’re viewed differently, an experience which can be a mixed bag. In addition, sexual stereotypes and expectations come into play in the form of pressure and identity confusion. Some adoptees already feel like a stranger to themselves because they look and feel so different from their adoptive family. When they morph into this more mature being, they can feel even more lost and out of place.
Jessica was an eighth grader, adopted from Guatemala, who had been struggling to find her place in her new more developed body.

“Maybe I wasn’t wearing the right bra or something, but my friend and I were running on our track at school Saturday morning. There was this old guy and he was also running on the track. But then, when my friend and I were running, we noticed that he stopped on the side to get some water. It seemed like he was staring at us. I told my friend, ‘let’s go’ and we just left because it was kind of weirding us out.”

That man might have been leering at them or just taking a water break. But Jessica hadn’t had to think about herself as a sexual being before. And, even if that’s not what was happening then, it’s a reality that she will have to contend with.

Even if they’re not sexually active the idea of sex is evocative for adopted teens in two ways. For many adopted teens, their child by birth if they have one at some point will be their first known biological relative. There can be a longing to offer a newborn all of the continuity and care that they felt deprived of.

They can also now identify with their birth parents in a way that they couldn’t before, which is that they are now physically equipped to conceive and give birth to a child. Many birth or biological parents were teenagers at the time of relinquishment. For adoptees to know that they could do the same may scare but also intrigue them. Sometimes adopted teens aren’t even aware that they long to feel an emotional connection or intimacy with their birth mother which fuels the desire to have a baby by birth.

Thinking becomes more complex in the teen years. Teens become able think beyond “black and white.” With this developmental shift, they’re able to contemplate the “what ifs” and other intangible questions and possibilities. Adoptees are already haunted by those unanswerable questions but the teen years bring them to another level.

When adopted teens haven’t developed their cognitive complexity, it’s important to adjust expectations accordingly.

Samantha was a Russian adoptee, a freshman in high school. Samantha’s adoptive parents were frustrated and confused. “I keep telling her that she needs to figure out what she’s doing this summer. I don’t want her just sitting around texting and complaining all day like she did last summer. That was a disaster,” her parents lamented when they came in for a consultation.

I had had a session with Sam the previous week.

“I just don’t think about things like that,” she answered, when I asked her about whether she thinks about the future.

Although Samantha was a teen, she hadn’t yet learned to think abstractly. Although she experienced many feelings, facts were easier for her to understand. Given that, it made sense why her parents were hitting their heads against the wall waiting for her to initiate a summer plan, or any plan for that matter. Instead, I recommended that they offer her three options for the summer that she could choose from. If Samantha didn’t or couldn’t make the choice, her parents would make the decision.

As teens expand and develop their thinking they may also have the perception that they are the center of not just their world but everyone’s. Their angst is that no one has ever gone through what they have, no one can understand and no one has it worse than they do. For adopted teens though, there’s some truth in those feelings. Being an adoptee can be challenging and different in ways that are hard for others to understand or put into words.

In adoption and teenhood, establishing an identity is an important but daunting task, and at times elusive. Generally, teens are emotionally porous. They’re influenced by family along with peers and culture. Adopted teens, however, are influenced by their adoptive family and by any other families and caretakers they’ve had on this journey. Those families are alive and well in their psyche as they look towards young adulthood, whether they’re known or imagined.

Generally, teens are challenged to become independent and self-sufficient, which means that they can support themselves emotionally and financially. That’s a slippery process. One minute they seem more mature than you thought possible and the next they’re melting down in ways that you haven’t seen in years. Adopted teens feel pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, they know that it’s time to grow up. On the other hand, to distance from the care that they endured so much to get feels counterintuitive. To try to depend less on their adoptive parents is difficult because they feel more lost and alone, but is comforting because it suggests that they can take care of themselves.”

Excerpt from Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.” Join online or local groups to delve more deeply into these topics!

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BOOK LAUNCH PARTY!

You’re invited to celebrate the launch of my book,
“Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.”

More Than Words empowers foster care youth to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business. It’s an amazing organization and a fantastic bookstore!
Adam Pertman, author of “Adoption Nation” will make opening remarks. Katie will talk about the book and then will be available for signings.

All are welcome, especially friends, colleagues, adoptive parents and others who work with adoptees.

Admission is free but please RSVP:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/book-launch-celebration-tickets-32806020691

The book will be available at the event, of course. Also, More than Words has generously offered a 20% discount for bookstore purchases.

Hope to see you there!

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My Background

MY BACKGROUND

“My adoption experience is broad and deep. I am Korean-born, internationally and transracially adopted. My life experience informs my work, and my work informs my life. My interest in helping others began long before I became a therapist. Although I can’t confirm this, doing this kind of work with individuals and families was in my blood, as the saying goes.

My adoptive parents were loving, kind and compassionate. But they didn’t know what my younger sister, also Korean and adopted, and I needed, especially during the teen years. My parents learned the hard way that love is not enough. They would be the first to tell you that, if they could go back, they would have parented us differently.

My first life lesson—it won’t get any easier.
This is the book they needed.”

—excerpt from Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.

 Pre-order here.

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The Challenge of Setting Limits For Adoptive Parents

“The task of being respected by your adopted teen is not to control or restrict them. It is to help them to make informed decisions, learning skills that will help them prepare for young adulthood. And strengthen your relationship.

But why might it be challenging specifically for adoptive parents to set limits?

In my experience, many adoptive parents equate saying no with deprivation. It’s natural to want to compensate for deprivation that someone has experienced. If a person was starving for extended periods of time, why wouldn’t you want to give them a feast?

A few years ago, I saw a little boy for psychotherapy, named Nate, who had been abandoned and left for dead at the age of two. When he started with me, Nate was four years old, newly adopted. He was really cute. His smile lit up a room. And, despite it all, he was basically a happy kid. Once, we heard an ambulance whiz by outside. He looked up, as if this wasn’t his first ambulance, quickly regrouped and went back to playing Legos. His speech was delayed and every picture I asked him to draw looked the same—scribbles.

Now, I am really clear about my boundaries but part of me wanted to give him…everything—the rest of the afternoon, snacks and toys to take home. I knew better, of course. From me, he needed a therapist, nothing more, nothing less. My wish to give Nate everything was how I managed my own feelings of helplessness about his trauma. Of course, nothing can alter his past. To think that I could somehow make up for it is an illusion.

Unchecked, our wish can be too similar to pity. Pity suggests that we feel sorry for them, which is the last thing that this boy or anyone needs.

Do you worry that when you set limits you’re depriving your adopted teen somehow?

But even when you’re ready to do right by your adopted teen, how do you set and uphold limits while keeping adoption in mind?”

Excerpt from “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years.”

Pre-order on Amazon.

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That Defining Story

 

“I was in graduate school studying social work, in a class on the use of narratives or stories in clinical work with families. In class we were asked to share  story from our life that defined us in some way. One student talked about losing her finger when she battled cancer; another talked about his bitter divorce. Everyone seemed to have that defining story at the read, except for me. My mind was a complete blank. All I needed was one. Why, then, was it so hard for me?

Just then, I realized. I needed to tell the story I never knew, my life before I was adopted. I was born somewhere in Korea, in an unknown setting, from someone whose identity is unknown. There was also an unknown father whose location was unknown. Somehow, towards the beginning, I ended up in an adoption agency. I couldn’t find the words to tell it, because I didn’t have the story. There was no one to ask. And, apart from a sparse adoption file, no information.

I had no words, no witnesses and no documentation. In that moment, I couldn’t move forward without it.

Being adopted is not just an isolated event. It’s a part of one’s identity that is constantly evolving and changing.”

That was an excerpt from the first chapter of “Parenting in the Eye of the Storm: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Navigating the Teen Years,” to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on March 21, 2017.